Big wind on the bargaining table

Jade Eckardt

HALEIWA—Soaring 200-foot wind turbines have become a regular sight on the Kahuku landscape and on Maui. And while it’s no secret that Hawaii holds claim to being the most fossil fuel dependent state in the nation, wind farms are becoming an increasingly viable option for Hawaii lawmakers who hope to take advantage of our islands’ trade winds.

The latest plans for wind power would see the creation of an interisland high voltage electric transmission cable system from Molokai and/or Lanai to transfer what amounts to 10 percent of Oahu’s energy needs. There could potentially be a total of 170 turbines, each taller than the First Hawaiian Bank Building, over 22,000 acres of land.

On July 25, a roundtable discussion on the big cable and Big Wind will take place at the Democratic Headquarters in Ward Warehouse. Scheduled to talk about the questions and concerns are Gerald Sumida, Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative; Estrella Seese and Maria Tome, Hawaii State Energy Office; and Robin Kaye, Friends of Lanai.

To see the entire schedule of Securing Our Future on July 18, July 25, and August 1, click here

Although wind farms generate clean, renewable energy, the method is often a subject of controversy and contrasting opinions by both Hawaii residents and experts on the subject. Although the huge turbines produce clean energy, they can have negative impacts on their surrounding environment, wildlife, and people.

Research has shown one thing is for certain: The positive and negative impact of a wind farm varies greatly between locations.

Under the banner of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI), wind farms have been constructed at several locations in the islands.

Launched in 2008 by the State of Hawaii and the U.S. Department of Energy, the HCEI is Hawaii’s solution to being four times more dependent on oil than any other state. The HCEI aims to achieve 70 percent clean energy by 2030, with 30 percent coming from efficiency measures and 40 percent coming from locally generated renewable sources. Viewed as an inexhaustible resource in the islands, wind has been identified as the most commercially available and economically viable option that Hawaii has, apart from geothermal, solar, biomass, and ocean thermal energy conversion as other alternatives.

Because of this, wind farms currently exist on Maui, Hawaii Island, and Oahu. If wind farm developers are successful with current proposals, they may soon be constructed on Molokai and Lanai.

Oahu recently became home to the first wind farm the island has seen in over 20 years. Kahuku Wind, a subsidiary of First Wind, a Massachusetts-based clean energy company, was constructed in 2010 and went on grid producing enough energy to power 7,700 Oahu homes. Twelve 2.5-MW, 410-foot tall steel turbines stand on the 578-acre farm. In addition to the turbines, the farm consists of a battery energy storage system providing short-term energy storage and a 30-foot high microwave communication tower that acts as a safety measure, allowing for grid stability. The farm produces approximately two to three percent of Oahu’s energy needs.

On Maui, First Wind constructed the 30 megawatt Kaheawa Wind Power that has been producing power since mid-2006. The farm consists of 20, 1.5 MW turbines made by General Electric. The second phase of the Kaheawa is currently under construction on Maui and is expected to in commercial operation by the end of 2011. The second farm will generate 22 MW of clean, renewable energy.

Hawaii Island is home to the Pakini Nui Wind Farm in South Point where 14 General Electric turbines produce 21 megawatts. Owned and operated by Tawhiri Power LLC., it went online in April 2007. In North Kohala, a 10.5 wind farm has been constructed that produces 10.5 MW of energy, and began producing power in 2006. The farm is owned by Hawi Renewable Development.

A simulated view of the proposed Auwahi Wind turbines situated on the hillside at Ulupalakua Ranch.

In October 2009, Sempra Generation, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, acquired Auwahi Wind Energy LLC from Shell WindEnergy Inc., a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell. Auwahi Wind is developing a 22-megawatt wind energy and battery storage project on Maui. Sempra Generation says the proposed project may begin commercial operations in 2012 in the southeastern region of Maui. Construction could begin this year.

Another First Wind project is planned for the Kawailoa area on Oahu’s North Shore. When complete, the Kawailoa wind farm is expected to generate 70 MW and will be the largest wind farm in Hawaii. Construction is anticipated to begin this year on land owned by Kamehameha Schools. Still early on in the process, 30 turbines are planned for the site, each slightly smaller than the ones at Kahuku. Combined, they will have the capacity to power approximately 15,000 homes.

On the island of Lanai, as part of the Big Wind project, Castle and Cooke has proposed to install a 200 to 400 MW wind facility. The electricity from the wind farm would then be transported to Oahu via submarine cable. Approximately 56 wind turbines will be installed within 12,800 acres, based on a 3.6 MW turbine model. The $1 billion undersea cable will require reef destruction and will run through a whale sanctuary, and connect to Oahu at a landing point between Pearl Harbor and Kaneohe Bay. They estimate that enough wind energy will be produced to supply approximately 15 percent of Oahu’s energy needs.

In April 2011, Castle and Cooke Renewable Energy agreed to assign a portion of its wind energy allocation to Pattern Energy Group, which will enable Pattern Energy to pursue construction of a wind farm on Molokai. This means Pattern Energy would be able to build a roughly 200 MW wind facility, half of Castle and Cooke’s original allotment. The proposed wind farm will cover an estimated 18 square miles of Molokai. All wind energy produced on Molokai will also be sent to Oahu via the underwater cable. The State is expected to pay for the $1 billion underwater cable installation, while Castle and Cooke would earn as much as $3 billion over the project’s 20–year life expectancy.

Wind industry officials often tout that wind energy is clean and takes a different approach. Electricity is produced as the wind turns the three blades. This causes gearboxes at the top of the turbine to spin, creating electricity. Through underground cables, the electricity travels from the tower to a substation and battery facility. There, the electricity is transferred to Hawaiian Electric Company’s transmission lines, sending electricity to consumers across the island.

The turbines currently on Oahu and Maui he have a 20-year life expectancy, after which they will be scrapped and replaced with new ones. The planned turbines for Molokai and Lanai also have a 20-year life expectancy, something opponents to wind energy cite as a reason to forgo construction.

The 30 MW of electricity produced by Kahuku Wind will eliminate approximately 154,000 barrels of oil used each year in Hawaii to produce conventional power. According to, 10.1 million MW of power was sold last year by Hawaii’s electric utilities, the equivalent of 100 wind farms that generate 30MW, like Kaheawa Wind on Maui.

Critics of wind energy question how much fossil fuel goes into creating each farm, and note the impact they can have on the surrounding environment and wildlife. However, there isn’t a simple answer to the question of whether wind farms are good or bad for the environment, because the visual impact, noise, and effects on wildlife vary drastically between locations.

Harm and death to birds and bats, known in the wind energy industry as “take,” are a side effect of spinning turbines. While it’s true these creatures can die from flying into the tall structures, the rate of turbine related bird deaths has been estimated to be lower than with other artificial structures. Bird deaths vary greatly by location. While some wind farms across the continental U.S report very high bird take, other show very little.

In early 2011, Kekoa Kaluhiwa of Kahuku Wind said the Maui farm’s take is much lower annually than allowed. To determine bird and bat fatalities, on-site biologists search a marked grid under each turbine on a regular basis.

Hawaii’s interest in wind energy may seem like a new venture, but the State has experimented with wind farms for decades.

From 1985 to 1993, HECO’s parent company, Hawaiian Electric Industries, developed and operated a 9-megawatt, 15-turbine wind farm in Kahuku. The site shut down in 1996, three years after ownership changed hands. It provided power to Oahu’s grid, but met its demise due to what HECO representatives called “low production and problems with equipment.” Years later, HECO and First Wind have high hopes for clean energy and agree that wind turbine technology has seen considerable improvement.

Hawaii Island’s Pakini Nui windfarm replaced the out-of-commission 9.3 MW Kamaoa Wind Farm that began commercial operation in the late 1980s and had 37 Mitsubishi turbines on 100 acres of land. The Lalamilo Wind Farm near Waikoloa, originally built in 1985, has also been decommissioned. According to Hawaii Electric Company, Hawaii County and the Water Board are in the process of procuring a developer/contractor to build a new wind farm at this location. 

Hawaii’s future in energy and oil consumption is uncertain, but interest in wind energy by utility companies, renewable energy companies, and wind farm construction companies appears to remain steady. Sources say Hawaii has some of the worlds best wind location to power turbines, and interest in utilizing our wind will most likely continue to grow. If that is the case, it’s important that Hawaii residents take part in determining whether the locations are sufficient.